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U.S. could send asylum seekers to remote jungle region under Guatemala plan

Deportees arrive in Guatemala City after an ICE Air flight from Alexandria, La., in August. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

Asylum seekers rejected by the United States could be transported to a remote airport in the lowland jungles of Guatemala as part of the Central American nation’s new migration accord with the Trump administration, according to senior officials from both countries.

Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, who was in Washington on Friday to finalize his country’s asylum cooperation agreement with the United States, is planning to receive and resettle migrants in the Petén department, far from Guatemala’s capital.

The plan would have U.S. immigration authorities deliver migrants to Petén’s Mundo Maya airport, which is used primarily by tourists visiting the Mayan ruins at Tikal. There are currently no direct flights there from the United States, and any new routes would require the approval of U.S. aviation authorities.

U.S. officials have responded to Degenhart’s proposal with unease, because Petén lacks the facilities and the personnel to handle returnees who may need resettlement. Department of Homeland Security leaders have persuaded the Guatemalans to launch the program using established routes to the international airport at Guatemala City, not the Petén jungle, as the program gets underway.

However, in a phone interview with The Washington Post, Degenhart said he viewed Petén as an attractive option for the asylum agreement largely because it contains one of the country’s few international airports.

“It’s one option and it will probably be used,” he said, adding that some asylum seekers could be sent to Petén and others to Guatemala City. “The airports could be used in a mixed way, with flights sent to both airports.”

The Guatemalan government’s desire to receive and resettle asylum seekers in Petén appears to reflect one of the central tensions of the controversial agreement. While the United States wants the flights delivering asylum seekers to Guatemala to be widely publicized to deter other migrants, the Guatemalan government is hoping to minimize the potential domestic backlash from the sight of Honduran and Salvadoran families arriving for a United Nations-sponsored resettlement program.

Degenhart and President Jimmy Morales are due to leave office in January, when Alejandro Giammattei will become Guatemala’s next president. Giammattei has been critical of the agreement but has not said he plans to cancel it. In July, President Trump threatened to punish Guatemala with tariffs if the government backs out.

Former DHS acting secretary Kevin McAleenan negotiated the asylum deal with Degenhart and later reached similar pacts with Honduras and El Salvador. Under the terms of the accord, asylum seekers can be sent from the U.S. border to Guatemala if they passed through the country’s territory without seeking protection.

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Record numbers of Central American families have crossed the U.S. border over the past 18 months, with many stating a fear of harm if returned, a claim that prevents their rapid deportation.

McAleenan, who stepped down this week, insisted that asylum seekers fleeing persecution should not have to travel all the way to the United States to find safety. The U.S. has pledged nearly $50 million to the U.N. refu­gee program so far to build up Guatemala’s skeletal asylum program.

Critics of the agreements say they are effectively backdoor deportation channels allowing the government to bounce vulnerable groups to countries too poor and dysfunctional to protect them.

The concerns would likely be amplified by a Guatemalan push to route asylum seekers to Petén. U.S. officials who described the Guatemalan government’s plan said the idea was met with dismay at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operates about 10 “repatriation” flights per week sending deportees to Guatemala City.

The U.S. government has funded a repatriation center at the airport in the capital to help Guatemalan deportees return to their homes and rural villages. It has also funded U.N. efforts to increase the capacity of the country’s asylum system, making those investments in the capital, not Petén.

Limited polling in Guatemala indicates the asylum agreement with the Trump administration is unpopular, with skeptics questioning how the government could resettle asylum seekers from other countries when so many Guatemalans struggle to find jobs and basic necessities.

U.S. officials insist they will not overwhelm Central American nations with returnees, and DHS will implement the accord using a gradual, phased approach that will be mindful of political sensitivities.

DHS officials also say they believe the majority of asylum seekers sent to Guatemala will return to their homes in El Salvador and Honduras, while those who are truly fleeing persecution will be able to find safety and shelter with U.N. help.

If that is the case, using Petén for the program would put returnees significantly farther away from the bus routes to El Salvador and Honduras. Instead, it would leave them close to the Mexican border and the smuggling organizations who recruit migrants for trips to the United States.

DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf said this week that implementation of the Guatemala agreement is planned “in the coming days.”

Degenhart said the plan to use Petén had not yet been finalized with DHS but that the Guatemalan government had expressed its preference to send at least some asylum seekers there. He declined to discuss details of the plan or Petén’s apparent lack of preparedness to accept asylum seekers.

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Petén is one of the poorest states in Guatemala, a sparsely populated region that has become a main trafficking route for drugs and migrants. Dozens of illegal landing strips have been found in the forests near the state’s border with Mexico, and security personnel occasionally come across small planes loaded with cocaine. Land disputes in Petén — linked to drug routes and illegal cattle ranching — have displaced hundreds of mostly poor Guatemalans. Dengue fever and other mosquito-borne viruses are endemic in the region.

About 100 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from other Central American countries, currently live in the state. It has one migrant shelter funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with a 60-person capacity, which is meant for only short-term stays. Because the country’s asylum process is centralized in Guatemala City, asylum seekers sheltered there must crisscross the country multiple times to process their claims in the capital, an eight-hour bus ride.

One person involved the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the United States was not opposed to Degenhart’s plan but that the Guatemalan government and the U.N. would have to build “appropriate facilities” for Petén to be a viable resettlement location. “It could be a win-win if executed right and UNHCR can provide housing and schools,” but using the region would require “a longer lead time,” the person said.

Development experts in Guatemala say Petén is unfit to accept any more asylum seekers, and they worry that such a plan could anger a local population that already feels abandoned by the central government. Officials at UNHCR have heard rumors about the plan but say they have not been consulted by either DHS or the Guatemalan government.

“Sending asylum seekers to a municipality like Petén will require large amounts of long-term investment to ensure those seeking protection and the communities hosting them receive sufficient support, and don’t generate a negative reaction from host communities,” said Giovanni Bassau, UNHCR’s regional representative for Central America.

Activists in Petén, who work with the state’s indigenous population, are irate about the plan.

“The government has failed to solve the problem of internal displacement in Petén, so where are they going to put the foreigners?” said Edgar Pérez Archila, a lawyer with the Legal Office for Human Rights in Petén.

Pérez and other activists have struggled to understand the government’s rationale in sending migrants to one of the country’s most remote and undeveloped regions.

“They don’t want to assume responsibility for the crisis they have already created, so what is their interest in sending migrants here?” he said.

DHS did not respond to requests Friday for information about the agreement’s implementation, and how many returnees could be sent to Guatemala during the initial phase.

Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.